Originally created 06/08/06

FireBall players can feel the spark



Freddie Moojen hasn't been at Clemson long enough to witness a fall football Saturday, so the Brazilian soccer star for the Tigers and Augusta's FireBall has some learnin' to do about Southern sports.

"I'd never heard about the Super Bowl before I got (to America) in 2004," Moojen said. "Somebody said to me, 'Fred, let's go watch Super Bowl,' and I did not know what that is. It didn't seem like such a big deal, but now I understand."

One of these days, Americans might come to the same understanding about the World Cup. The quadrennial gathering of 32 soccer nations dwarfs every other sports event on the planet, and Moojen is well aware of how much the happenings of the next month in Germany mean back home.

"I think if the Brazilian team doesn't win, it's going to be a big disaster in Brazil," said the FireBall's goal-scoring machine. "They are pretty sure we're going to win. Not just that, they want to win every game by three, four, five goals difference. If you win 1-0 and it's ugly soccer, they get mad."

Moojen is the distinct favorite to win any trash-talking contests with his FireBall teammates, as defending champion Brazil is poised to win its record sixth World Cup title. But the highest quality local soccer club - with a 4-0-1 record in the U.S. Premier Development League - has a diverse World Cup flavor, including players with ties to such soccer-frenzied nations as Mexico, Costa Rica, Portugal, Ireland and Kenya.

According to the World Cup's governing body, FIFA, 28.8 billion people worldwide watched the 2002 World Cup tournament on television, with 1.1 billion alone watching the final between Brazil and Germany.

For everybody in America who believes true football is played with a ball with points on each end, less than 100 million watch the Super Bowl every year - which makes it 10 times less the spectacle as its futbol counterpart.

Considering the population of the planet is roughly 6.5 billion, that's a long reach.

"Living in the United States, we just don't realize how big of an event it is," said Alec Papadakis, the FireBall's owner and coach who has attended several World Cups and had to give up tickets to this one. "We think the Olympics is big. The World Cup is maybe a hundred times bigger. It completely consumes the whole world."

"We don't see it here in the states, but like a third of the world is watching one soccer game," said Havird Usry, a FireBall defenseman from Richmond Academy and Clemson. "And people think the Super Bowl and stuff is real huge, but they really don't know what's going on in other parts of the world."

Starting Friday when host Germany plays Croatia, the beautiful game gets its maximum exposure that comes around every four years. The world indeed watches this event, and the FireBall hope the attention trickles down to them.

"It's kind of like when the Masters rolls around every year. You want to be on the golf course as soon as you're done watching the final round," said Usry, a defenseman. "It sparks interest and draws you to the game whatever you're watching on TV."

Usry should know. He gets addicted to his television this time every four years. He has the TV schedule magnetized to his refrigerator so he can be prepared to watch every game he can. When the last Cup was contended for in South Korea and Japan, Usry stayed up all night with Clemson and FireBall teammate Mark Buchholz watching every game live.

"It's awesome," Usry said.

Three other FireBall players from Duke are getting a closer look at the spectacle. The Blue Devils are traveling to Germany and Austria for off-season exhibitions, taking goalie Justin Papadakis, middie Tomek Charowski and defender Kyle Helton into the heart of the soccer beast at its most fervent pitch.

They'll even get to see the U.S. opener against the Czech Republic on Monday before coming home in time for the next FireBall game against Raleigh at Patriots Park.

"It doesn't get any better for a 20-year-old to be in Germany at this time and taking in the World Cup," Alec Papadakis said. "Believe it or not, all three are looking forward to coming home and playing for the PDL team. They really love doing what they're doing and it's close to their hearts."

If the World Cup is the pinnacle, what takes place eight times a season at Patriots Park is the cradle. "Developmental" is a word that's been associated with soccer in the United States long before soccer moms became a political demographic. The players with the FireBall now hope to start pro careers soon and maybe even rise to the level of national team members.

Papadakis insists it's within the realm of possibility that one or more among a handful of current Augusta players could be competing in the next World Cup in South Africa in 2010.

"This is how good these kids are," he said.

Players such as Moojen are so good that the FireBall club is a real contender in the PDL. Moojen twice led the nation in scoring at Lincoln Memorial junior college near Knoxville, Tenn., and was the league's top scorer last year while with the Cocoa Expos. He leads the FireBall with six goals this season.

With Brazil's national team the toughest soccer nut to crack, especially with the politics involved, Moojen's goal would be to gain American citizenship and play for the U.S. national team. He's not alone in wishful thinking.

"Any's player's dream is to play for their country, and the World Cup is definitely the biggest stage to represent your country," Usry said.

For now they'll just watch with the rest of the world and hope a few more people in their corner of it might get interested enough to come watch them. So far the FireBall have drawn just more than 400 in three home games, finding it difficult to compete head-to-head with high school graduations and Greenbrier's state baseball championship doubleheader.

"Every time there is an event like this going on, it certainly does help sell the sport," Papadakis said of the World Cup. "The newspapers and television are covering it and everybody is talking soccer this and soccer that. It certainly helps the local soccer participation. It hopefully can generate some spark in the young players to one day get there."

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.